Herbs for a Healthy Diet and Life (For You and Your Dog!)
I’ve always been a huge fan of herbs, and have used them in food since I first learnt to cook. Looking into herbs as medicines seemed like the most natural thing to do after this. Luckily for my patients and for myself, studying veterinary medicine failed to dampen this interest. So as soon as I finished university I started a veterinary herbal medicine course. Since then herbs have played a larger and larger part in my life, and I find that you can connect much more with your surroundings out in nature through knowing a little about plants as medicine, and as food. You suddenly notice that there is food and medicine everywhere! And what better way to discover them than in your kitchen, or garden, or out on a walk. In my house, all of these activities involve being trailed (or preceded!) by at least one friendly furry face. And so guess what?! Herbs started finding their way into all of my animals’ lives (the cats find this less thrilling!)
As my knowledge of herbs grew and my experience using them in myself, my own pets, and then in my patients, there was one thing I found odd: Why weren’t so many other people aware of how beneficial herbs could be as part of a healthy diet and lifestyle, for both themselves and their pets? These plants were everywhere but people didn’t seem to be taking advantage of the bounty nature provides them with to aid health. So here I am telling you all about it, in the hope that you can start your own journey into herbs, for both food and medicine.
Herbal medicine is the oldest recorded form of medicine, involving the use of plants or their extracts as medicine. Plant species evolved alongside animal species and it is said that for every disease that an animal could produce, there is a plant that could cure it – whether we’ve found it yet is a different matter! However, before they were used for medicine, plants were used as food – for flavour, nutrition, and to balance the diet. In the world we now live in many people are quite disconnected from nature, and from plants. Food comes in packaging, ready-made or processed to be unrecognisable from its natural form, with sugar and salt and other additives used for flavour, more than herbs. Food is mostly bought from a shop, rather than grown or cultivated in your garden, so few people really get to know plants or have them available for trying out in their diet. Luckily as dog owners it is difficult to be totally disconnected from nature, as part of dog ownership involves taking your dog out for a walk, which more often than not, involves being out in nature, surrounded by plants! Plus the majority of dog owners will have a garden of some kind, where plants, even if it is only grasses, will be growing.
One of the easiest ways to get herbs into your and your pets’ lives in in your food. This is a great way of taking herbs at low doses to help promote overall health, rather than necessarily to treat disease (although they can be used this way, usually at higher doses, or for longer periods). If you feed raw it makes total sense as dogs would have eaten herbs from the intestines of their prey way back before they were domesticated. Prey, being grazers, would always have had a good variety of different herbs available in their guts for the canids to eat. Herbs and fruits have been found in wolf guts and scat in modern times too. A lot of owners report to me about what plants or grasses their dogs like to eat and it’s often fascinating to find that they have selected plants for their specific condition. This self-selection is known as zoopharmacognosy, but that’s an entirely different topic!
In the diet herbs are usually used fresh, dried, or cooked. Leaves, flowers or fruits can be used fresh or dried, as is, or they can be infused into just-off-the-boil water for 5-7 minutes. When infusing herbs I always recommend using a lid over a cup, or a teapot with a lid, as this preserves any volatile oil components, which are often part of the mechanism of action of the herb so shouldn’t be lost. Roots can be used fresh, but more often they are decocted (simmered for 5-7 minutes), or infused if fresh, rather than dried. Some herbs can be found in powdered forms too which can be used as is.
Before we get further into the herbs themselves and how they could help you and your pets let me say this:
If you or your pet are suffering from disease, or taking any conventional medicines, then it is wise to consult with a doctor, vet, herbalist, or veterinary herbalist before taking or giving herbs. Their effects can be profound and powerful, and they can interact with certain medications, so please be careful!
Now let’s get you all excited about herbs, and this blog is going to look at herbs in your house and garden. Most kitchens are a veritable herbal medicine cabinet if you know what to look for, and lots of people grow herbs in their gardens, or even on balconies or windowsills in flats and apartments. Many people keep their own herbal medicine cabinet (or at least a few remedies!) for themselves, and most of these can be used in dogs too with an adjustment to dose. The herbs that come to mind for most people are the aromatic green herbs – think Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, Thyme, etc. These herbs are aromatic and flavour-filled because of their volatile oil components. Freshly chopped or dried (or blended with a little water if your dog is fussy!) they can be added to meals every day, using anywhere from a sprinkle to a pinch to a teaspoon, depending on your dog (size and health status). The other herbs present in most kitchens are the spices and seeds, often used in Eastern cooking – think Turmeric, Ginger, Fennel seed, Cayenne, Cinnamon, etc. These are most commonly added to food as powders, although Turmeric and Ginger can be used fresh, and Fennel seed is usually made into a tea. Then there are the everyday foods that are herbs like Oats and Bilberries/Blueberries, and the tea cupboard which can be full of medicines, like Chamomile, Licuorice and Green tea. And finally the medicine cupboard where you might find Echinacea, Calendula and Slippery Elm. As well as adding flavour these are nutritious herbs, and they all have their own medicinal actions:
Parsley – rich in iron and beta-carotene, this herb is good for anaemia and fatigue. It is a primary herb of the urinary tract, can help support the immune system and aid in drying up milk when pups are weaned.
Sage – helps with fat digestion and like parsley can help dry up milk at weaning or during a phantom pregnancy. The volatile oils that give it its strong flavour also make it an herb for modulating microbial populations (this means it encourages ‘good’ bacteria, whilst discouraging ‘bad’ bacteria), so it’s great for infections, especially of the upper respiratory tract and throat.
Rosemary – a well-known brain tonic (Rosemary for remembering), this herb improves circulation and uptake of oxygen by cells, helping digestion, detoxification and respiration as well as mental function. This does mean though that it should NOT be given to EPILEPTICS, as their brains are firing too much already! It is also a microbial modulator.
Thyme – one of my favourite respiratory herbs, and herbs for cooking, this can help support the body’s natural defence against infections as well as soothing spasmodic coughs, aiding expectoration (coughing up gunk from the lungs!), soothing the throat and modulating those microbes.
Basil – a particularly delicious herb, great for lifting low mood and calming tension, which can improve sleep and help with spasmodic or nervous indigestion (like stress colitis)
Mint – Rich in Vit C and beta-carotene, Mint is brilliant for nausea (including travel sickness) and an antispasmodic, so fantastic for gut disorders or cramping (Dill is also great for gut problems, as are Fennel leaf and Cardamon)
Oregano/Marjoram – calming herbs these are good for tension and anxiety, as well as gut or muscle spasms. They have microbial modulating effects too.
Chives – in the same family as garlic, they are less potent and so can be used more safely, but have the same antiseptic and microbial modulating benefits, particularly in the respiratory tract, as well as helping with digestion.
(Garlic can be given to dogs, NOT cats, but be cautious with the dose and do not give every single day as it can be toxic, causing anaemia)
Lemon balm – a delicious and wonderful calming herb and part of the mint family, Lemon balm makes amazing tea. Great for general anxiety and nervousness, as well as for specific events (like going to the vets!) and for helping with sleep. Particularly good for older animals.
Turmeric – widely used medicinally as an anti-inflammatory and antioxidant herb, commonly now in the form of golden paste (although for medicinal purposes I don’t find this strong enough). It can discourage cancer if used as part of the diet throughout life, and even form part of cancer treatment protocols (think ‘Tumour-ic’). It is also brilliant for the digestion, although too high a dose (too bitter) can upset the guts, so be cautious. Always give turmeric with a meal containing fat in some form as it is fat soluble.
Black Pepper – one study found that 10% Black pepper to Turmeric increased the bioavailability of Turmeric by 2000%. It hasn’t been repeated but it’s an easy and safe addition so I always encourage this.
Ginger – great for the circulation, this warming herb is also fantastic for arthritis and is an anti-emetic so helps with nausea including travel sickness. If your dog is a very ‘hot’ dog (!), pants a lot, seeks cool places, etc. then it may be better to avoid warming herbs, or at least to use them very sparingly, or only when the weather is cool.
Fennel seed – one of my favourite herbs for tea, it is one of the best antispasmodic herbs (along with aniseed), perfect for gut or uterine cramps. It also encourages milk flow during lactation, especially at the beginning or if there are lots of pups.
Cayenne – a very warming herb (obviously!), this is fantastic for the circulation, particularly to the extremities. It is also great for respiratory infections and for poor digestion. Be very cautious with this as you don’t want to set your dogs’ mouths on fire! (Although when I think about it I’m not sure it’s in my dogs’ mouths long enough for them to really taste it, unless as an after-thought)
Cinnamon – another warming aromatic herb, Cinnamon is very tasty so can help hide the flavour of less delicious herbs to improve palatability. It also aids the circulation, digestion, and has antiseptic and decongesting properties.
Bilberry/Blueberry – a renowned antioxidant bilberries, and to a lesser extent blueberries and other berries, are great for maintaining health when fed regularly. Bilberries are also great for the eyes, and for the brain, so are fantastic for helping dogs to age more happily.
Oats – although they are a grain, so some dogs may be sensitive to them, they are also a medicine. They are a neurotrophorestorative, which means they help the nervous system to function as effectively as possible, so are fantastic for spinal or hindlimb problems, as well as for supporting brain function. Best given after soaking overnight in water (you can give the ‘porridge’ or just squeeze off the liquid and give that).
Chamomile – one of my favourite herbs, which as a tea makes a fantastic antiseptic and anti-inflammatory wash for both wounds and eyes (including mild conjunctivitis or hay fever type eye inflammation). It is also an amazing calming herb and is fantastic for the digestion, especially cramps, gas and stress colitis, as well as generalised anxiety or nervousness.
Liquorice – a very sweet herb, often made into teas (or sweets!). It is anti-inflammatory and soothing, particularly for the guts and respiratory tract, especially the throat. It is also an expectorant so both calms the cough but also encourages any mucus out of the chest so it can be coughed out of the system.
Green tea – another well-known antioxidant and immune system booster, great used on a long term basis to help prevent and treat cancer. Be careful with the caffeine content in dogs - it is less than black tea but don’t leave the teabag in for too long! Green tea can also be used as an ear flush or eye wash. Black tea is good for eyes too but can stain light-coloured fur. Redbush tea has also been found to have immune boosting and cancer preventing properties.
Echinacea – the most famous immune modulating herb, known to be great at preventing and treating infections, particularly viral ones, and especially of the respiratory tract.
Calendula – found either in the garden (where it can become a weed if it isn’t kept in a pot) or in the medicine cabinet in a cream or balm form, Calendula is an amazing wound healer with antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties too. It’s great for the guts (fresh or as tea, not the cream!) as well as the skin.
Slippery Elm – usually found in powder form either as a food supplement or herbal medicine. This demulcent herb forms a gelatinous paste that coats the lining of the guts soothing inflammation and protecting from further damage. It even acts as a prebiotic too, feeding the good bacteria in your dogs’ intestines. It can also be used as a poultice, by making a paste from it, and placing this over splinters or similar.
So there’s a little snippet of herbal information to get you excited and experimenting with supplementing your dogs’ diets, or even treating them, with easily accessible everyday herbs. Hopefully you’ll even try some of it yourself as well.
To use herbs as part of a healthy diet and life I would follow these basic guidelines:
- 1)Start with a very small amount and build up if the herb agrees with your dog (and if they like it!)
- 2)Variety is the spice of life (and it ensures a variety of nutrient and medicinal benefits)
- a.For herb type, and
- b.For herb form (fresh, dried, infused, etc.)
I ask one final thing of you: when you are out walking start to pay particular attention to the plants around you, and how they change with the seasons. As a child we went for lots of walks, even before we had a dog, but I remember when we did get our first family dog I suddenly became much more aware of the seasons. We would walk those same routes and see how the hedgerows, fields, and neighbouring gardens would change, through the quiet of Winter, to Spring with its new growth and flowers, to Summer with more flowers, fruits, seeds and vegetables, continuing into Autumn with the harvest and changing of the leaves, and back into Winter rest. Being a fan of the seasons helped me to realise that herbs, both as food and medicine, should vary with the seasons. I now routinely adjust herbal formulas for my patients and pets at least every 3 months, to ensure the body is adapting and changing with its surroundings. So get to know your local hedgerow, because in the future I will tell you all about the herbal treats it has in store for you!
Let’s get excited about plants, together.